In Andrew Lytle’s first book, BEDFORD FORREST AND HIS CRITTER COMPANY, General Forrest became, in Lytle’s hands, the symbol of the Mississippian South and its best illumination, next to Lytle’s “The Hind Tit,” his essay in I’LL TAKE MY STAND, the manifesto of the Southern agrarians. The passionate portrait of primal simplicity in both works is fascinating and frustrating; the same reaction meets most of Lytle’s work—certainly THE VELVET HORN—and is probably the truest measure of the novelist.
The novel, dedicated to John Crowe Ransom, joins a distinguished company of works acknowledging his influence, and it is this agrarian viewpoint which both attracts and repels in the novel. The lyrical description of the lost simplicity of the Garden summons up the old Adam in the reader, only to make the reader reject the vanished vision when he raises his eyes from the page. In this novel, as in Faulkner’s “The Bear,” the Garden is the unspoiled forest, here the Wilderness and specifically the Peaks of Laurel. It comes equipped with game, cover, and water, even with a Cooperesque secret entrance through a waterfall; but this is only the starting point of the novel, the setting for the story of the Cropleigh brothers and their sister Julia which precipitates years later the events that affect Julia’s son, Lucius, the apparent hero. The agrarian point of view is in the custody of the most impressive character, Uncle Jack Cropleigh. The tension between the agrarian base and the Reconstruction events is complicated by the poetic language in the lyrical description of the wilderness life and by the twists of the interconnected plots. This is a highly wrought novel.
Although the simplistic agrarian cosmos is shattered by the mercantilism of those who prospered in Reconstruction days and by the necessity for Lucius finally to make a living cutting virgin timber from the wilderness, the difficulty of facing up to such a resolution is shown in the length and occasional turgidity of the novel. When the action becomes static, the language becomes overwhelming, and there are several set scenes in which this sometimes happens, as in the first meeting between Ada Rutter and Jack Cropleigh, or at Captain Cree’s wake. Lytle’s solution is to underwrite such set pieces with a current of tension derived from the plot or plots.
The first meeting with Ada Rutter, for example, is tense because Uncle Jack is trying to drink the dwarf-child, Othel, under the table, to keep him from shooting Eddie Dunbaugh for watering his cattle on the Peaks of Laurel during the drought with which the novel opens in August, 1879. This would give time to dig the well which Uncle Jack has already divined; but Eddie prefers to steal the water so that he can fornicate with Ruthy, Ada’s younger daughter, who has also been seduced by Eddie’s son Jeff. Frankie, Eddie’s wife, knew what was keeping Eddie on the Peaks but did not foresee Jeff’s interference. At Frankie’s insistence, Jack divined the well. The whole incident, the major portion of the first part, “The Peaks of Laurel,” ends even more unexpectedly in the seduction of Lucius by Ada’s older daughter, Ada Belle Rutter.
Lucius had originally been called away by his mother from helping his father cut Aunt Amelie’s timber tract to drag Uncle Jack up the Peaks and thus help out Cousin Frankie, and incidentally Eddie. Worst of all, news of the event with which the novel opens, the apparently accidental death of Captain Cree under the falling white-oak tree, finally reaches Lucius at the Peaks, and he returns to his father’s funeral on the day...
(The entire section is 1485 words.)